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Pandemic and weather in West complicate travel again as travelers try to head home after Christmas

U.S. airlines canceled hundreds of flights for a third day in a row on Dec. 26, as spiking coronavirus cases grounded flight crews. (Video: Reuters)

The coronavirus pandemic continued to scramble Americans’ plans on the day after Christmas, with more than 1,000 flights canceled and virus-related absences and soaring case rates leaving many gatherings and events in limbo.

With cases also rising sharply around the globe, several European countries have announced new restrictions, and Israel said it would launch a study Monday of whether a fourth vaccine shot could be effective.

Many of the U.S. flight cancellations occurred on Delta, United, SkyWest, American and JetBlue airlines, according to the flight-tracking company FlightAware. The service said at least 1,212 flights within or going to or from the United States were canceled as of Sunday midafternoon — not a record-setting amount, but enough to make traveling difficult. Another 997 U.S. flights had been canceled on Saturday, the service said.

“These are the kind of numbers you’d see if it was a massive blizzard on Christmas Day,” said David Slotnick, who covers the aviation industry for the Points Guy, a travel website. For comparison, he said that there are about 200 cancellations on a typical day. “There’s been some winter weather in Seattle and Salt Lake City, but the reality here is the large amount of covid.”

The airlines said the cancellations were mainly prompted by employees who tested positive for coronavirus, requiring them to quarantine for 10 days. Airline officials have called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cut that time to five days, joining an array of industries expressing concern that the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus has made it impossible to maintain needed staffing levels.

After two years of trauma from the pandemic, many people are near the breaking point

Anthony S. Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Biden and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday that he would welcome a requirement that airline passengers be vaccinated, while stressing that masks and air filtration has made it safe for people to be on airplanes.

“Anything that could get people more vaccinated would be welcome,” Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But with regard to the spread of virus in the country, I mean, I think if you look at wearing a mask and the filtration on planes, things are reasonably safe.”

Across the country, thousands of travelers, some of whom for months had planned to visit with friends and family, learned that their flights were canceled, leading to a cascade of frantic telephone calls and online efforts to rebook to reunite.

Ashley Goldsmith, 34, a content strategist in San Francisco, decided in October that she’d put a big wedding on hold and instead is getting married at City Hall, surrounded by close friends and family in late December after the Christmas holiday.

Now she’s anxiously hoping even that plan comes together: Her father and sister, who were supposed to fly in from New York on Christmas Day, have had their flight canceled twice. They were scheduled to leave Sunday night.

“If the cancellations keep happening, how many times do we reschedule before we just say, ‘Maybe it’s not going to happen?’” she said. “If I had known what omicron was going to be like and if I had known it was going to be impacting flights and things like that, I might have thought twice about all of it.”

Katherine Duggan, 32, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University, missed a lamb Christmas dinner with family in the Los Angeles area, after cancellations on both Friday and Saturday. She now hopes to get to California on Tuesday.

“I humbly request that you set aside some of the lamb,” Duggan told her aunt on Christmas, speaking with relatives via video call while making do with Indian takeout. “I can set it aside,” her aunt replied. “But I can’t guarantee it will last until you make it to town.”

Fenway Bowl canceled after Virginia withdraws amid virus concerns

Boston College senior Matt Owens, 22, had a different kind of problem. He set out from his home in Kansas City at 3:45 a.m. Sunday on a mission: making it to the 2021 Military Bowl in Annapolis on Monday to watch his school face off against East Carolina University.

As his D.C.-bound plane took off from Chicago, he learned the game had been canceled due to a shortage of players, due in part to the virus. He booked a 6:30 p.m. flight back home, which ended up delayed at least two hours.

“A very, very long day of technically accomplishing nothing,” Owens said, somehow still sounding chipper. “It’s just kinda life, and you’ve got to deal with it sometimes. Sad it happened. We were all excited for the game. But wish all the players best of luck in recovery.”

Poor weather at airports in the West, including Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Salt Lake City International Airport, also impacted flight schedules.

Gemma Millar, 43, sat on the tarmac for more than five hours while her Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle tried to deal with icy weather. Then she was told the plane had burned through so much fuel that it had to return to the terminal.

“I have no idea honestly what is going to happen,” said Millar, who was trying to get home to Florida after visiting her sister for Christmas. “At this point, I just want to get off the plane.”

Delta Air Lines had canceled 161 flights out of the 4,155 scheduled by Sunday afternoon, after scrapping more than 580 flights on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. United Airlines canceled nearly 100 flights related to staffing shortages, out of more than 4,000 flights scheduled.

American Airlines canceled at least 76 flights and delayed more than 370 others as of Sunday afternoon, according to FlightAware. A company spokesperson referenced the airline’s Christmas Day statement citing “COVID-related sick calls” as the cause of some cancellations.

“Airlines were already pretty thin in terms of their labor numbers,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Think of a school that just has one substitute teacher, and then all of a sudden, three or four of the main teachers get sick and have to quarantine.”

The Transportation Security Administration reported that a total of 5.4 million people went through security screening at airports from Dec. 23 through Dec. 25. That’s more than double the same period last year, but still not reaching the travel levels of 2019.

Brett Thorson, 45, felt lucky that his direct redeye flight from Honolulu to Dulles International Airport was not canceled. But when he saw how many people on Sunday morning were squeezed into the “mobile lounges” — which take people between terminals at Dulles — he cringed.

He and his wife and 13-year-old son all took rapid tests after getting back to their home in Alexandria. All were negative, but he said they plan to mostly hang out inside for the next few days, just in case. “I am still worried that covid is inside and just kind of getting its hooks in me,” Thorson said. “If I had the option, I would have stayed in Honolulu.”

In nearby Maryland, the number of cases and positivity rate jumped over the holiday weekend, with the state reporting 5,826 new cases Sunday and a positivity rate of 15.8 percent — up from 10.8 percent a week ago.

In D.C., travelers at Union Station reported no unusual delays on Amtrak and said they were trusting their masks and vaccines to keep them safe.

“You just have to be careful,” said Alfredo Correa, 60, who had flown from Los Angeles with his wife and teenage daughters to spend Christmas in Washington with family. On Sunday, they were boarding a train for New York. “We’re all boosted, and we just make sure everybody is masked. It’s just common sense.”

Thousands who 'followed the rules' are about to get covid. They shouldn't be ashamed.

D.C.’s public coronavirus testing sites, which were flooded with residents who wanted tests before holiday travel last week, shut down for the Christmas holiday on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday, one limited option reopened: Residents could pick up free rapid antigen tests at four firehouses in the city, so they could test themselves at home. Before the firehouses opened at noon, some residents were ready waiting in lines that stretched for blocks.

The city’s other testing options will resume Monday, including PCR tests administered by medical professionals at firehouses and other public locations. Residents will be able to pick up the free rapid tests at eight libraries, which will each have 2,000 tests available per day and will offer up to four tests, or two kits, per resident. Residents can also pick up PCR tests for testing themselves at home at additional libraries and public buildings. Those PCR tests must be returned to a dropbox to be processed by a lab, which can take several days.

In New York, the skyrocketing number of infections has outpaced the increase in hospitalizations and deaths so far, the city’s health department reported on Friday. While the city’s seven-day average of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases has climbed to 12,613 — a nearly 10-fold increase from a month ago — physicians say that many cases are leading to only mild symptoms in people who previously were vaccinated.

Public health experts said they were relying on patchwork data to gauge the national effects of the omicron surge, as most states did not report daily coronavirus cases across the Christmas holiday weekend. They also expect that many Americans relying on at-home rapid tests will not submit those results to local health departments, further clouding efforts to track the outbreak.

Denmark sees initial signs that dire omicron surge can be avoided

In Europe, France’s rise in reported cases has been among the highest, with over 100,000 daily coronavirus infections for the first time since the coronavirus emerged in China. French President Emmanuel Macron will hold emergency meetings Monday to go over next steps to contain the virus. A draft law pushed by the government would require proof of vaccination to enter public venues and restaurants.

In Ireland, where Dec. 26 is the biggest day of the year for household get-togethers, the chief medical officer warned citizens not to gather and to shop online instead of visiting stores, the Associated Press reported. In Belgium, the government closed cultural venues such as movie theaters and concert halls, sparking protests by artists and event organizers. The Netherlands has implemented a partial lockdown, closing down bars, restaurants and all nonessential stores as well as extending the school break.

China reported 158 new cases of local coronavirus transmission, a record number since last January, according to Bloomberg News. The last time China reported domestic infections was mid-October.

On Monday, Sheba Medical Center in central Israel will begin a trial study of 150 medical personnel to determine whether administering a fourth coronavirus vaccine shot safely boosts immunity. Israel recently announced that it would be the first in the world to offer a fourth vaccine to citizens 60 and older, the immunocompromised and health-care workers. The campaign is waiting for approval from Ministry of Health Director Nachman Ash and is being debated by the medical community, which cites a lack of scientific evidence behind the decision.

Dan Diamond, Peter Hermann, Shira Rubin, Maite Fernández Simon and Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.